President Obama, responding to widespread criticisms that his handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis was clumsy and ad hoc, said, “I’m less concerned about style points, I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right.” For the president and many politicians in both parties, problems, whether domestic or foreign, are about policy solutions; perceptions of the policy or its implementation, what Obama calls “style,” are irrelevant. As he said about Syria, “The chemical weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with.”
This idea that foreign policy crises are about finding and applying the right objective formula in order to solve problems, just as one does in engineering or mathematics, is a peculiarly modern prejudice. For most of history, those who thought about the rivalries and conflicts among great powers knew that the subjective perceptions that states and leaders develop about one another, and the prestige they granted or refused, rational or not, are critically important factors in the relations among states and must be taken into account during a crisis. And the most important perception that creates prestige is of a state’s power and willingness to use it.
The great Athenian historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, recognized this critical factor in state relations. In his history, he has an Athenian ambassador catalogue the causes of state behavior towards rivals and enemies: fear, honor, and interest. Fear we can understand, and “interest,” in the sense of material or territorial gains, will not surprise us. “Honor,” however, we might dismiss as an archaic relic from our less enlightened past, when people lacked knowledge of the psychological, sociological, ideological, and environmental springs of behavior that we believe we possess.
But honor is bound up with prestige, the reputation and influence a state possesses based on a public estimation of its achievements, status, or power. Notice that whether those bases of prestige are true or not at times can be irrelevant. As the Roman poet Virgil wrote, “They have power because they seem to have power.” It’s enough that people believe them to be true. This is the modus operandi of every schoolyard bully, who robs his schoolmates of their lunch money by projecting an image of fighting skills and ferocity. Often when those skills are challenged, the bully’s prestige vanishes, and he is routed. We should remember that the origins of the word “prestige” lie in the Latin word praestigiae, which means “juggler’s tricks.”
Of course, in order to maintain prestige, a great power eventually must be able to back up the perception of its military power and its willingness to use it. But history documents many occasions when states have successfully run bluffs and achieved their aims. Adolf Hitler’s early foreign policy successes were due in part to exploiting the over-estimation of Germany’s military power by France and England, their bestowing upon the Reich a military prestige far beyond the reality at that point. In 1936, he remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty with 36,000 policemen and green troops, while just across the Rhine nearly 100 divisions of French and Belgians merely watched.
In 1938 when he invaded Austria, many of his tanks ran out of gas and scores of abandoned vehicles lined the road. France and England’s passivity, and the willingness of most Austrians to be absorbed into Germany made the invasion a success. And the seizure of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia later that same year would have failed had England and France supported the Czechs, who had more than a million men under arms, the Skoda armaments works—one of the most productive in Europe—and state-of-the-art defensive fortifications in the mountainous Sudetenland.
Hitler’s generals trembled at all three moves, as they did not believe the Wehrmacht was ready to take on two powerful enemies like England and France as it would in 1939. But the British and the French had the perception that Hitler’s military was that strong, and that perception became a force multiplier. But perception is a two-edged sword. All France’s and England’s military might did not impress Hitler, because he did not believe that they had the will to use it. Here we see the truth of Napoleon’s dictum that “morale is to the physical as three to one.” No amount of material power can compensate for the accurate perception that a state has weak morale and is unwilling to fight. And even if false, that perception can invite aggression.
Great powers, then, must nurture and periodically confirm their prestige, those global perceptions of their power, the belief of their allies and rivals that they will consistently help friends and punish enemies. Britain, at the height of its Empire, understood the need sometimes to take military action not to acquire territory or resources, but to demonstrate the wages of challenging their prestige. In 1868, they sent an expeditionary force to Ethiopia to rescue the British consul and several other Europeans being held hostage by the erratic and cruel King Theodore.
The British had to construct a port, lay railroad tracks, build a road, and then march 400 miles to Theodore’s stronghold. They destroyed his army and rescued the hostages, then left with only some artifacts looted by soldiers. But the message was clear: threaten British interests and citizens, and there will be a terrible price to pay.
In our own history we see the wages of damaged prestige, and the value of its repair, by a vigorous response to an enemy’s challenge. After the abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975 and the election of the internationalist idealist Jimmy Carter, the Soviet Union went on a geopolitical rampage, with its own forces and satellites fighting in Afghanistan, Africa, and Central America. The Soviets’ calculation was not predicated on a material estimate of our military weakness, but on a disdain for American prestige, which had been tarnished in Saigon.
The election of Ronald Reagan and his vigorous pushback against Soviet adventurism, as well as a military build-up, turned the Soviets back, and Reagan’s active foreign policy eventually hastened the collapse of their empire, restoring American prestige to the point that 47 nations supported George H.W. Bush’s war against Iraq in 1990, with 34 nations, including many Muslim countries, providing troops.
Another blow to American prestige under Carter still challenges our foreign policy today. In 1979, a ragtag band of students and jihadists seized the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 hostages for 444 days. The prestige the Iranians acquired throughout the Muslim world, and the corresponding disdain for America, the “Great Satan,” invigorated the various jihadists outfit that started a war we are still fighting today. Yet this failure to punish aggression against our forces was reprised by Ronald Reagan, when he failed to defend our prestige after the Iranian-backed terrorist murder of 241 of our military personnel in Beirut in 1983. And this same mistake was repeated yet again by Bill Clinton, who made only token military responses to al Qaeda’s attacks against us in Mogadishu, East Africa, and Yemen.
That lesson went unlearned under George W. Bush and remains so under Barack Obama. Iran’s training and support of jihadists killing our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, its cultivation and financing of jihadists groups throughout the region, and its ongoing program to create nuclear weapons remained unpunished, strengthening the perception on the part of the Iranians that the U.S may bluster, negotiate, and sanction, but it will not take the military measures necessary to prevent a fanatical regime from acquiring nuclear armaments.
That contempt for American power is unlikely to be mitigated by the recent events in Syria. Making several threats, failing to back them up, and then resorting to a diplomatic process that was initiated by Russia––one of Bashar al Assad’s most stalwart global supporters––and that is unlikely in the end to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, has confirmed the Iranian view of America, and angered our allies like Saudi Arabia, who understand that such perceptions are crucial for the Iranians’ calculations of risk and reward.
Worse yet, even if we manage to take Assad’s chemical weapons from him, the damage will remain. Assad, already being rearmed by Russia and Iran with conventional weapons, will probably prevail against the rebels, or at the least survive in an Alawite enclave if the country fragments. Meanwhile, as Bernard-Henri Levy pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, he has been transformed from a war criminal into a legitimate negotiating partner.
Such an outcome will be dangerous for U.S. national security and interests, as an emboldened Iran will remain active in the region, Hezbollah will gain prestige and invaluable fighting experience from battling alongside Assad and both will continue to be supplied with weapons from Iran. Other rogue regimes or jihadist organizations may make the same calculation as Iran and Syria, and attack our interests or those of our ally Israel. And Russia will exploit the perception that it, not the U.S., is now the dominant power in the region. Whether that perception is true or not won’t matter. The states of the region will act as if it is true, and the result will be the same as if it were.
This foreign policy debacle is the worst since the Iranian hostage crisis, and likely to have malign effects as long-lived as those following that blow to our prestige. The most obvious consequence will be Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, if it hasn’t already occurred. These are the perils of forgetting the role that prestige plays in enabling a great power to defend and advance its interests.
Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America.